Dozens of black vultures linger on a tower near Karen Foster's Jeffersonville farm. Submitted photo
Dozens of black vultures linger on a tower near Karen Foster's Jeffersonville farm. Submitted photo
SOUTHERN INDIANA — Everybody has heard the tales by now. Black vultures — once thought by many to be scavengers — turned killers.

Farmers throughout the region have reported stories of the birds eating their livestock alive — both calves and their full-grown mothers.

In other instances, it doesn’t even have to be an animal, as some have said the vultures are tearing through their roofs and boat covers.

It isn’t just the destruction causing headaches for farmers. Rather, it’s the fact that they have no options to eliminate problem birds until they have already killed livestock, at which point they can apply for a permit to shoot them.

This stems from a century-old law called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which went in effect in 1918 to slow the population decline of birds due to the plume trade.

Now, lawmakers are stepping in to flip those restrictions. U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., is introducing legislation that will allow farmers to protect their livestock before they lose any animals.

“Right now, your livestock has to die by a black vulture, then you have to go get a permit,” Hollingsworth said. “You have to prove that it is a problem beforehand, then you can get a permit. You should be able to protect your livelihood before it comes to that.”

The Livestock Protection Act of 2019 would let farmers acquire depredation permits from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, essentially allowing them to kill a limited amount of black vultures.

By attaining this preemptive permit, Hoosier farmers could prevent the loss of any of their animals — a solution many have hoped for.

According to Hollingsworth’s office, almost 20 percent of the 870,000 cattle and calves in Indiana are in the 9th District.

Numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service show that cattle predation costs an estimated $183.65 million in 2015, with 26,770 cattle and calf deaths being attributed to the vultures. In Indiana, 42 percent of all calf deaths caused by predators have been attributed to birds.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which determines the conservation status of wildlife, lists black vultures with the status of least concern, meaning they are plentiful in numbers. But this status is unrelated to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, with Hollingsworth’s office noting that their population has not been in danger at any point in modern history.

In fact, many in Southern Indiana have noticed an increased presence of the birds over the years as their habitat has spread from southern states.

“We’ve been incapable of depredation for a long time,” Hollingsworth said. “That’s what’s led them to be in the lowest conservation status. Black vultures are set at the least concerned. They’ve just grown in population. There’s an influx in our area.”

But Hollingsworth doesn’t want to call for an “open season” on the birds. He also proactively reached out to conservation groups to discuss the matter with them.

“We want this to be good for everybody,” Hollingsworth said. “We want the right outcome for farmers, but we want to make sure we don’t go too far. Being a nature lover myself, I don’t want to see anything excessive, either.”

Though the problems associated with the birds are new to Indiana, they’ve had a foothold in other states over the years. Because of their experience with the issue, lawmakers in Kansas and Kentucky have assisted Hollingsworth in his efforts to solve the problem.

For those who may have not encountered the vultures, Hollingsworth said he is planning a roundtable to show other members of Congress evidence of the vultures’ aggression.

“We’re going to bring videos and pictures,” Hollingsworth said. “We’re going to sit down with a bunch of other members. We’ve got some great stuff from the Indiana delegation. It’s hard to imagine that if you live in Boston that it’s going to affect you. That’s why we want to inform them.”

In the northern part of the Midwest, like Minnesota, lawmakers have taken up similar causes with other predatory birds. When the final version of the bill comes to light, Hollingsworth said it may include clauses to include those birds, as well.

“Our bill specifically focuses on black vultures,” Hollingsworth said. “There’s been some compromise in the northern Midwest for some other problems.”
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